In these uncertain times, this much is fact: the fandom convention circuit has taken a serious beating. As the world ground to a halt in 2020, so too did monolithic fan gatherings like San Diego Comic Con International. While some events have ramped back up in small ways and with heavy precautions in recent months, cancellations like that of 2022’s Toy Fair New York, originally scheduled for February, continue to disrupt the calendar. However, as fandom holds out hope for a return to normalcy, this time of frequent pauses coincides with a major anniversary in that world. Fifty years ago, January 21, 1972 saw the debut of the very first Star Trek convention.
The idea of a fan convention goes back to the 1930s, but like anything in fandom, there’s some disagreement about who was first. Both British and American fans and writers were conducting meet-ups as early as 1936. One British group tried to assert, after the fact, that the first convention actually took place in the 1800s. Philadelphia’s 1936 Science Fiction Conference (Philcon) claims that it’s the forerunner. The first World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York in 1939; the event took place contemporaneously with the 1939 World’s Fair. Now dubbed Worldcon, that event has taken place annually since (with the exceptions of 1942-1945 during World War II and the shift from an in-person to virtual version during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020). Over time, fan conventions splintered into a variety of specific gatherings devoted to broad genres (fantasy, horror, etc.) or particular entertainment mediums (comics, gaming, anime, etc.).
But when it comes to fandom, it’s hard to top the energy of the ardent adherents of Star Trek. During the 1966-1969 run of the original series, rumors began that the show was facing cancellation. With a little clandestine prompting from series creator Gene Roddenberry, fan Bjo Trimble and her husband, John, organized a letter-writing effort to save to the show; in part, they used existing mailing lists from conventions to reach out to fans to join their campaign. The NBC network confirmed that it received 116,000 pieces of mail from fans, although others estimate that the actual amount of mail directed to the network was greater than that total. The show did last another year, but was cancelled after the third season. The grand irony is that the show became even more popular after its cancellation; syndication put the show in front of viewers of all ages at a variety of different times in different markets. Viewership of those episodes exploded, and the fandom galvanized and grew.
By 1971, an effort was underway to organize an actual convention devoted to Star Trek. A group of die-hard fans known as “The Committee” came together to plan the event. Dubbed “Star Trek Lives!,” the convention ran from January 21 to January 23, 1972 at the Statler Hilton in New York City. Roddenberry himself was a guest, as was his wife, Majel Barrett; Barrett had played Number One in the original pilot episode, “The Cage,” and went on to play Nurse Christine Chapel and supply the voice of the Enterprise’s computer in the series. Other guests included series writer D.C. Fontana, novelist Hal Clement, and science-fiction legend Isaac Asimov. The event featured a number of activities that would become familiar convention features over the years, including episode screenings, a masquerade (“costume call,” a forerunner of today’s cosplay), and an art show. NASA even got in on the act, providing displays like an astronaut suit and actual moon rocks. The event pulled in 3000 attendees.
Despite the legendary William Shatner convention sketch from Saturday Night Live, the cast and crew of the various Trek shows are almost universally hailed as some of the friendliest and engaging celebrities that anyone could meet. Many of the stories that fans carry away from conventions are about the kind and positive interactions that they’ve had with members of the cast. Then there are tales like that of Larry and Cindy Crittenton, who met at a convention at the LAX Hilton Ballroom in 1988; as of 2019, they’ve been married over 30 years. The con environment has become a warm and welcoming place for followers of the shows, even if the occasional bat’leth duel breaks out in the aisles.
Over time, Star Trek conventions have continued to manifest in a variety of ways. Actors and other talent from the dozen various Star Trek series appear regularly at all of today’s major conventions, like San Diego Comic Con International. Specialty cons and events still occur frequently, such as Starbase Indy in Indianapolis and official conventions stage by Creation Entertainment. With recent renewals of multiple Star Trek series on the Paramount+ platform, the storied franchise shows no signs of slowing down, and neither do its fans.
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